Yesterday MySpace deleted the profiles of 29,000 sex offenders from the site. It was a good PR move for the company, and more motivated by wanting to be seen to be "taking action" by politicians and the public than anything else. After all, it would be a simple enough task to gain access to the registered sex offender database, compare emails to registered emails on MySpace, and then delete the accounts. No doubt any real predators who want to target MySpace users will simply create another account.
It generated a fair amount of debate. Stephanie Booth pointed out that prudish sex offender laws in many states lump acts between consenting adults into the same category as those preying on children. You can read her full post, but let's just say that it's hard to imagine that most adults haven't, at one time or another, committed one of these acts. That's why what MySpace and grandstanding Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal have done is nothing more than a placebo perpetuated on an unsophisticated public that really just wants to protect kids. Their actions are a fraud.
Brandon Watson, the CEO of IMSafer, wrote an impassioned and lengthy post also. His point? Predators go where they prey is. He backs it up with some statistics designed to show that the incidence of predation on MySpace may be higher than in society at large. Like Stephanie, he also notes that it's not the young kids that are vulnerable, but the teens, quoting University of New Hampshire's David Finkelhor:
So these are not mostly violence sex crimes, but they are criminal seductions that take advantage of teenage, common teenage vulnerabilities. The offenders lure teens after weeks of conversations with them, they play on teens’ desires for romance, adventure, sexual information, understanding, and they lure them to encounters that the teams know are sexual in nature with people who are considerably older than themselves.
Given the wide scope of definition around the term sex offender, it's nearly useless for identifying predators and for protecting the vulnerable in society. Tools like the ones that Brandon's company, IMSafer, provides are whatreally help to keep kids safe. IMSafer uses sophisticated pattern matching algorithms to look for text that might be considered dangerous in IM messages, and then alert parents to the conversations. It goes right to the heart of the problem, which are conversations between our kids and strangers. At the same time, it's not an intrusive or privacy busting solution because it only alerts parents when a potentially dangerous situation is occurring. The rest of the time, kids privacy is preserved.
Brandon dropped me a note last week to say that since their launch they are now monitoring over 2,000,000 relationships, and have scanned 100 million messages. What IMSafer is doing is far more meaningful than MySpace's decision to delete a few user accounts. If you have reason to be concerned about your children's safety online, then you owe it to yourself to check out IMSafer.